November 11, 2008

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

It was a modern marriage, born of Cleveland's desire to salvage something out of its last few months in control of CC Sabathia, Milwaukee's need of a pitching mercenary to make its playoff push and Sabathia's interest in pitching well enough so teams like the Brewers and Indians had no chance of affording him in free agency. Baseball realists had no reason to view the trade, made on July 7, as anything more. Sabathia didn't move his family to Wisconsin, nor did he open up long-term contract negotiations with his new club later in the summer. Every Joe Fan tailgating outside of Miller Park soon possessed the knowledge that CC was either house-hunting or house-building (the former was true) in Southern California, and this was not a sore spot among the faithful. It was simply the way things were. Sabathia was theirs for the short-term -- only. Given that Sabathia was a 28-year-old Californian who had spent most of his professional baseball life in Ohio, it wasn't surprising when he admitted Milwaukee's 26-year playoff drought was not something that weighed on his mind.

And yet, when the Brewers ended that drought by clinching the NL wild card on the season's final day, there was no player who had poured more of himself into the playoff bid than Sabathia. His stats were Cy-worthy -- 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 130 2/3 innings pitched -- but his actions showed a level of devotion disproportionate with his status as a rental. It began with his arrival: Instead of lagging back in Cleveland for a day or two to settle his affairs -- as many a traded star has done in the past -- Sabathia showed up in Milwaukee the day the trade was announced and threw six strong innings for a victory over the Rockies the following night.

He endeared himself to his new teammates as a giant, laid-back, regular dude who happened to be the best lefty in baseball. He threw caution to the wind and threw seven complete games before season's end, racking up pitch counts of more than 120 on four occasions. When the circumstances called for it, between Sept. 20 and 28, Sabathia started three straight games on three days' rest, and in the last one went the distance against the Cubs, four-hitting them to overtake the Mets in the wild-card race. If Sabathia was protecting his arm for an impending free-agent windfall, he had a funny way of doing it.

In the Brewers' clubhouse after they clinched, the 6-foot-8 Sabathia was at the center of the celebration, having beer and champagne dumped on his head while teammates chanted "C! C! C! C!" Outside, in the stands, most of the fans lingered, soaking in a moment the gravity of which Sabathia probably could not fully appreciate, a celebration for a long-downtrodden baseball town finally exiting its Dark Age. Sabathia had taken a young team with a slumping offense and a beaten-up pitching staff, put it on his back and carried it into the postseason. What the Brewers realistically expected when they traded for Sabathia, I don't know, but it couldn't have been that.

When Sabathia made his fourth-straight start on three days' rest, in Game 2 of the NLDS against the eventual world champion Phillies, he finally cracked. He was chased from the hill in just 3 2/3 innings, having given up five runs and been subjected to a sold-out Citizens Bank Park hauntingly chanting his name. Milwaukee's short-term hero, for once, was humanized. Brewers fans accepted it with little anger, for they knew Sabathia, like a true Sportsman, cared as much as they did. He had already done more than enough. And if he ever returns to Miller Park -- as a Dodger, or a Giant, or a Yankee -- there won't be a boo-bird in the house.

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